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Thoughts on Lizabeth Scott

LizabethScottLizabeth Scott is gone. She was 92. The actress, who reportedly died in Los Angeles on January 31, was striking, talented and unjustly undervalued and underemployed in Hollywood—where she was viciously smeared. But she was both luminous and, in a way, premature for a world that matched her ability. Having briefly met her, I think she probably knew it.

Many, possibly most, readers probably haven’t heard of her and there’s no reason why they should. The Scranton, Pennsylvania, native was raised as a Catholic, quit college to start working in New York City, and was discovered by legendary producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca, True Grit, Anne of the Thousand Days, Love Letters, The Furies, Now, Voyager, Sergeant York) who put her as the female lead opposite Robert Cummings in You Came Along (1945), directed by John Farrow and written by Ayn Rand. But she never truly got what she deserves.

Miss Scott was usually better than her parts and films. She possessed all the qualities being written about her in and throughout today’s media—the coastal Times newspapers predictably peg her as a ‘film noir’ actress—including the sexual intensity, the intelligence, the voice, the slightly androgynous air and the unaffected, tough exterior embedded with the will to submit at her discretion. She wore Edith Head’s glamorous costumes well and she was radiant, though she was rarely given the role in which to shine. From her early pictures, such as You Came Along, which she told me when we met was her first and favorite of her 22 movies, and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) to Loving You (1957) with Elvis Presley and Pulp (1972) with Mickey Rooney, she almost always added depth and at least brightness to the screen. She makes her films, which are mostly mediocre, worth seeing.

Miss Scott lived alone in the Hollywood Hills, evoking one of Scott’s heroines, screen legend Greta Garbo, and, throughout her career, she was an individualist, which left her open to ridicule and innuendo. Having once expressed that she wore men’s cologne and pajamas and confessed that she hated frilly dresses, she was smeared by a hack (and former Communist) who insinuated that Lizabeth Scott was a lesbian. This nearly destroyed her career. Citing damages, Scott sued for $2.5 million in 1955. The New York Times reports in Scott’s obituary that the lawsuit is “believed” to have been settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. As a leading lady in film noir and noirish pictures such as Desert Fury (1948), Lizabeth Scott—who had co-starred with Burt Lancaster, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Michael Caine and with Charlton Heston in his film debut—was finished. She withdrew from movies, focusing on occasional television appearances, a musical recording career and auditing philosophy courses at the University of Southern California (USC).

When I met the actress briefly during an event at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) honoring her late co-star Barbara Stanwyck several years ago, she was still the would-be movie star, not so much moving through as glowing throughout the room and taking everyone’s breath away while leaving them bewildered as to why. I told her that I had enjoyed her performances and I expressed an interest in interviewing her, which she at first waved off. Then I mentioned her first film, You Came Along, the Ayn Rand-penned picture in which she portrayed a government worker who falls in love with a troubled soldier on a bond tour. At the mere mention of this movie, she paused, moving closer. Her eyes grew wide and she gripped my hand and said: “I loved Ayn Rand.” She explained her reasons and we talked about my favorite writer, whom she said was one of the few in Hollywood whom she felt understood her ability. Then, Lizabeth Scott turned to her escort and asked him to give me the contact information to schedule an interview. I later proposed to interview Miss Scott as part of a series for the Ayn Rand Archives, which had just produced the long-awaited 100 Voices. But, while I would have treasured the opportunity to interview Miss Scott, I remember my moments with her fondly and I am confident that her proper place in motion pictures will be recognized in time. As she once said:

I don’t want to be classed as a ‘personality,’ something to stare at. I want to have my talents respected, not only by the public but by myself.”

Miss Scott was constantly compared to the late Lauren Bacall, another sultry, smoky-voiced actress from the same era in movies. But I think Miss Scott might have been the better actress, with wider range and a more compelling presence on screen (I mean no disrespect to Bacall, whom I appreciate in pictures such as Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not and The Shootist with John Wayne). It is too bad that Miss Scott is remembered as an early film noir prototype and not much else. The term femme fatale does not do her justice. Sadly, it is too late for that now. I think that it is probably still too soon for Lizabeth Scott and that the world is possibly not yet ready for the actress she might have become. But I experienced firsthand that Lizabeth Scott was ready for the world and on her own terms—and this is a grand lifetime achievement.

Three New Interviews

Three new interviews focusing on music and movies are posted. Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, talked about TCM’s Star of the Month, Robert Redford (who’s in Utah kicking off the Sundance Film Festival) in a candid exchange about the elusive movie star (read the interview here).

Melissa Manchester sat down with me to discuss her early years with music industry mogul Clive Davis, the challenges of maintaining a 40-year career in show business and writing, recording and crowdfunding her first new album (You Gotta Love the Life) in 10 years, which debuts next month (read the interview here).

And writer and director Mike Binder (Reign Over Me, The Upside of Anger) gave me an exclusive, in-depth interview about his controversial racially-themed picture, Black or White, starring Academy Award winners Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner, which opens this Friday, January 30 (read the interview here).

Movie Review: Whiplash

whiplashPosterDramatizing single-mindedness, Whiplash, by writer and director Damien Chazelle, is a thought-provoking movie about what it takes and means to hold yourself in high esteem. Young drummer Andrew (Miles Teller, Divergent) begins to learn at the outset from his master (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man) during an interrupted solo session when he doesn’t even realize that he’s being taught. That his first instruction is a brief, powerful exercise in how to listen to the teacher fits the film’s theme that great work is ultimately learned, practiced and mastered alone. Whatever praise the pupil deserves that does come from others, including the brutal teacher, must be earned. Andrew’s estimate of himself comes first.

This is one of life’s most important lessons, delivered here in terms of jazz. Chazelle reaches his theme on many levels, overpowering Whiplash with Simmons’ remarkable performance as an emasculating music conservatory teacher who is a tyrant to seed the finer parts of the story. “Watch your step,” a sign reads during opening scenes. This applies to the prodigy, who lives alone with his single father (Paul Reiser), a writer who mixes Raisinets with popcorn and serves as a contrast to Simmons’ overbearing character. If the teacher is too hard—in fact, he’s beyond harsh—the parent is too soft. Their student and son, Andrew, represents the potential for the whole man—one who is exactly right. The bright young student wholly commits to the pursuit of excellence, to getting to practice on time, to feeding his talent for drumming by studying music, bandaging bloodied hands and focusing on each lesson a teacher’s tirade is presumably intended to yield—all while balancing romance with a girl who works at the local movie theater (Melissa Benoist).

Winning a spot in the core band is Andrew’s goal. Understanding that being the best means enduring the worst is depicted as Andrew’s unintended gift.

This more than anything may be the near-psychotic teacher’s point, which may come too late when rivals step in, compete and, one by one, rotate in a taut, tense drive to compete with other drummers and perform for prizes. The cast is excellent, especially principals Teller and Simmons but also Reiser as the second-hander parent and Benoist, who shines in an agonizing scene as the young woman.

The story is full of conflict and resolution, culminating in a climax which finally, entirely and properly takes place out of school, among the living, where practice meets theory in an unforgettable exchange. The stakes are high—anxiety, pressure, suicide come into play—especially for coddled, entitled generations for whom the Simmons character renders a sadistic blend of practice, contempt and deliverance. Whiplash comes with melodramatic predictability and horrifying methods based on the notion that reaching one’s potential precludes quiet guidance and encouragement. But, in Andrew, there are multiple layers of precise and pointed wisdom about activating the best within. The sting is primarily and intellectually motivational—observe Reiser’s father as a foil and what happens to the teacher—and it emanates from the crackling mind of one man, his instrument and whether he earns an upward glance, including everything it gives and takes.

Whiplash is extreme, which is to say it’s condensed, stylized and exaggerated in generating suspense and expressing its theme. In dramatizing something that everyone should already know—that being the best entails an exhaustive expenditure of effort, which, sadly, most no longer consider, let alone think about—the film seems to sanction the view that gaining value necessitates inducing pain and suffering. The creative mind atrophies and expires without proper recognition and encouragement and the conviction that achieving one’s values is possible. In this regard, Whiplash takes positive reinforcement for granted. But the artist achieves greatness through single-minded commitment and this Whiplash delivers with verve. That it feels revolutionary is evidence that the culture is abundant in the other, wilted, kind of movie about genius—movies depicting men of ability as deficient, such as Rain Man and The Aviator—which makes Whiplash, despite its wild-eyed music teacher, no less a movie that’s very well done.

Movie Review: Birdman

birdman_posterWith Christ-like imagery, this pretentious film from the director of Babel about pretentious New York stage actors on the eve of a new production’s premiere never convincingly takes flight. As an ensemble character piece, with another excellent performance by Edward Norton, whose co-star from The Painted Veil, Naomi Watts, also appears, it is involving. However, Birdman chiefly belongs to Michael Keaton as an actor turned director who copes and spirals and copes with family and professional challenges during the pre-production of his cathartic new play. Much of his story, unspooled through the gauze of what might be his own subconsciousness, rings true.

The primary obstacle appears to be the Keaton character’s past success in the role of a superhero for movies and Michael Keaton brings his best to the part. A rash of cast, crew and family (and a critic) complicate his self-made change with drama, melodrama and real, imminent and legitimate problems, questions and issues. This all happens in real time, more or less, with cynical lines and dramatic and humorous arcs. One involves his daughter (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man), who stands up to her dad in a memorable scene and closes the show in her own way with a final scene which evokes the last shot in Babel. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu certainly has something to say about fathers, daughters and heights.

Whether the message is as profound as Birdman would have its audience believe is up for debate. The film appears to stand for taking a leap into bold, new journeys. It does so while ticking a clock to put the journey into a certain, fixed perspective. If this engaging, artsy film is anything other than an odd, interesting microcosm of theatrical life signifying a sort of resurrection might depend on one’s patience and life experience, though Birdman ultimately dives and swirls in a flurry of confusion with moments of wit and clarity.

Happy Birthday, Elvis

Elvis_(1979_film)For Elvis Presley’s birthday, I’ve reviewed ABC’s outstanding 1979 telefilm, Elvis (click on image to buy the DVD). Read the review here. Whatever one thinks of Elvis Presley and rock-n-roll, this is an exceptional movie.